Appeals judges hold court in LU student ballroom

With several dozen Lincoln University students watching, three judges from Missouri’s Kansas City appeals court heard oral arguments Wednesday afternoon in three different cases.

One involved the third appeal from Cole County Presiding Circuit Judge Patricia Joyce in a dispute over the state Social Services department’s Family Services Division and its handling of Blind Pension Fund payments.

Another case challenged Judge Daniel Green’s decision in a dispute about a Russellville man’s estate.

The third case came from a Johnson County judge’s ruling suppressing evidence of driving while intoxicated that the Highway Patrol took after stopping a Warrensburg man for speeding.

The blind pensions case started in February 2006, when pensioners sued over the division’s underpayment of benefits dating back to 1992.

“For almost the last eight years, we’ve been fighting over the Blind Pension Fund, which (my clients) have a constitutional right to receive,” lawyer Deborah S. Greider reminded the appeals court.

In its June 2009 ruling, the appeals court said the pensioners only could recover underpayments dating back to 2001 because of a five-year statute of limitations.

But among the new issues in the third and latest appeal is the state’s argument that pension payments should start at $391 a month, rather than the $441 a month the pensioners said they’re owed.

“The damages are what they are,” Greider argued. “The statute of limitations doesn’t mean the state can’t make the required calculations” for what the payments should have been.

The pensioners, she said, “were grossly underpaid from 1992-2001 … so the state’s $391 number can’t be right.”

But, Assistant Attorney General Ron Holliger countered, the pensioners were being paid correctly.

“The division corrected the mistake in 2005,” he said.

LU freshman Yakara Buchanan said “it was just confusing keeping up with both sides and what they had to say.”

Appeals Court Judge Mark Pfeiffer had warned the students that the court’s oral arguments would be different from what they’ve seen in the movies or on TV.

Buchanan agreed, while attending the hearings for her American National Government political science class. Still, she said, “it was very interesting to watch. I enjoyed it.”

LU senior Hosea Gaines, attending the hearings for his Media Law class, also found the Blind Pensions case “very detailed” and hard to follow.

But the DWI traffic stop case, he said, “really intrigued me; it was more of a criminal case.”

Gaines said he was interested that the case had made it to the appeals court, because “usually officers, whatever they do and however they stop a person, the court usually sticks with the charge — and this charge was overturned.”

The last case involved Gary A. Fischer and Elizabeth Corpening, who’d been married for 20 years, then divorced in 1992 — then moved back in together in 1998 but didn’t remarry.

After Fischer died last year, Corpening asked his estate to pay more than $330,000 as compensation for health care services she gave him in the last years of his life— but Green ruled the the couple had a “special relationship,” and cited the legal “presumption that services rendered by (Corpening) was gratuitous.”

Jefferson City lawyer Stephen Stark, representing Corpening, argued: “The divorce changed the relationship.”

During the trial, he added, “There was no opportunity to show there still was an agreement for compensation.”

But Jefferson City lawyer John Landwehr said: “The evidence is overwhelming there was a ‘special relationship.’ … They didn’t point to evidence just of services rendered.”

After the hearing, both lawyers said having the arguments in a college student union instead of a courtroom didn’t change the way they had to work.

“The appellate court is just really focused on a particular issue or two,” Stark said. “I think it’s good” the appeals court sometimes travels to college campuses, “where the students probably can learn a lot.”

Landwehr added: “I think they pick cases (to hear) that might be, factually, kind of interesting — and I think maybe (the judges) tend to ask a few more questions, so the audience understands a little bit more about what happens in oral argument.”

As usual, the judges didn’t say how long it would take them to decide the cases they heard Wednesday at LU.

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